Why Did The NBA Change Their Dress Code In 2005?

Long before LaMelo Ball rocked up to his post-game press conference in a neon green (yellow?) suit tricked out to match his Lamborghini, it was common to see players strolling to press conferences and into the stadiums in baseball caps, baggy shirts and pants, du-rags, and anything from fur coats to sweatshirts.

That all changed in 2005 when the former NBA Commissioner David Stern enacted a large and sweeping change to the league’s dress code.

Why did the NBA change the dress code in 2005? Stern stated the dress code was meant to bring a more professional look to the league by requiring players to dress in business-casual attire. However, there were many factors that came into play, such as attempting to recoup the league’s reputation. 

On the Surface

While fans of many sports in 2022 are used to seeing their favorite players dressed to the nines, before 2005, none of the professional sports leagues in the United States actually had a stated dress code, and they especially didn’t require players to look as if they were heading into the office.

This was, in fact, one of the main supporting arguments for enacting the dress code. NBA players were showing up to work in sweatpants and du-rags. Some fans didn’t find this to be a problem, but it seemed that the league definitely had an issue with it. After all, lots of people who make far less money than NBA players do have to wear whatever their employers tell them.

A more formal dress code didn’t seem like such a big ask for these players, but many of them took issue with the rules, stating that they were racist or targeting players like Allen Iverson.

Malice at the Palace

Skirmishes aren’t uncommon in NBA games, even today. In a 2021 game between the Pistons and the Lakers, Isaiah Stewart (Pistons) and LeBron James (Lakers) were both ejected after James committed a foul against Stewart, drawing blood from his eyebrow. 

Stewart then proceeded to chase James around the court, fighting his way through his own teammates, coaches, opposing players, referees, and security guards. For several minutes, Stewart continued to pursue James in a rage, while James remained out of the fray, doing his best to not escalate the situation.

However, this was quite a mild incident when compared to the 2004 brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons, which involved not only players and other NBA staff, but also the fans, who attacked and threw things at the players. 

It was one of the worst events to take place at an NBA game, and it led to direct changes of NBA policy, such as restrictions on alcohol sales and increased numbers of security guards in the arenas.

Although it wasn’t directly stated by the league or by Stern, many fans and players alike think that the Malice at the Palace incident also impacted the dress code, since the league wanted to recover from its negative image, which was not helped by the Pacers-Pistons brawl.

Allen Iverson

Known as “The Answer,” this Virginia native made an unequivocal impact on basketball and the NBA from his rookie season onwards. Both on and off the court, Iverson was impossible to miss, and his signature style was one that the league essentially banned in their new dress code. 

He was an outspoken critic of the new rules, but he was far from the only one. However, given that Iverson perhaps embodied the very thing that the NBA was trying to distance itself from, the dress code became known as “The A.I. Rule.” 

Iverson had some legal troubles in the past, serving time in jail as a teenager for a fight at his local bowling alley. Even though he was pardoned by the Virginia governor for his part in the fight, the arrest and time served no doubt soured many colleges to Iverson.

When he did get a shot at college and subsequently entered the draft, Iverson brought his style with him. He is a self-proclaimed member of the hip-hop generation, and he even created an unreleased rap album. Thus, his style was heavily influenced by the early 2000s rap scene, which wasn’t something the NBA wanted to associate itself with.

Accusations of Racism

Some comments made by the commissioner and coaches, as well as the rules themselves, were thought by some to carry insinuations of racism. Coach Phil Jackson was quoted as saying that players dressed in “prison garb” and that they were giving off “gangster, thuggery” images. 

Since the regulations explicitly banned headgear, jerseys, du-rags, T-shirts, large jewelry, sneakers, and work-style boots to interviews, games, charity events, or anywhere that is associated with the NBA, many felt that those particular callouts targeted Black players and Black culture.

Stephen Jackson of the Pacers said that he had “no problem dressing up” but that he did feel that the ban on chains was racially motivated. “Almost 100 percent of the guys in the league who are young and Black wear big chains. So I definitely don’t agree with that at all.”

The Impact on the League

Side-by-side comparisons of early 2000s NBA stars and their counterparts of today show off vastly different fashion choices. However, that would be true across almost any cross-section of society. 

Let’s not forget that 17 years have passed since these rules came down. Rappers and musicians of today aren’t dressing the same as almost 20 years ago, either. So it’s possible and probable that the overall style of the NBA would have changed and developed on its own as new players continued to come in and set various trends. 

However, the introduction of this dress code did cause a very quick change in the fashion focus of many NBA players.These days, players wear all kinds of things to NBA-affiliated events, many of them making waves on social media whenever they show up. 

Players who remain in the league today who were also around when the changes took place, like Dwayne Wade and Lebron James, have had huge impacts on men’s fashion across the globe. Russell Westbrook, who joined the league in 2008, is known for his loud fashion choices and even wearing clothes that break gender stereotypes.

That said, the NBA isn’t immune from controversy these days. That is just too much to expect from a simple dress code, and in a league with over 500 players and countless other coaches, staff, and managers, there is not going to be a way to completely eliminate controversy or unpleasantness.

As for what Allen Iverson thinks about the outfits that today’s players show up in? He said to GQ that he wouldn’t personally wear a lot of those clothes, but, “I don’t have a problem with what these guys doing and I think it would be sad and unfair if they were to try to change the dress code again.”

Even within the dress code rules, players are finding ways to express themselves and stand out, and it’s just a part of the pregame ritual to see who has the best outfit on the way to the locker room.

Chris Davis

I'm Chris, the guy behind BasketballJoy. I've played basketball for 20+ years and have been a full-time coach since 2017. On this website, I share everything I know about the most beautiful sport in the world - Basketball.

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